Can I be an indigene? Pretty pretty please? These days that's all I want to be: an indigene, rooted and tuted. I want to identify, and distant genealogical connections to various old countries have attenuated too badly in the American melting pot treatment for any of those affiliations to feel binding. Sure, I love to play the bagpipes and can claim a Scottish connection (by way of Nova Scotia), but only cultural sentiment elevates it over, let's say, the strain of Dutchness in me that goes all the way back to Pieter Stuyvesant. Then there's the Creole French and the Irish grandfather also clamoring for representation. That's enough hyphenation to make anybody hyperventilate.
Ah, to be an indigene! To have identification conferred as a birthright according to where you were born, and not according to your ancestry. It would make things so much easier: one is only born in one place. The result would be not so much birthright citizenship as birthright tribal status. Well, it turns out that I am an indigene. By virtue of the place of my birth I'm apparently a full-fledged member of the tribe of Appalachians.
At least that's what it says in the first chapter of Studying Appalachian Studies (University of Illinois Press, 2015), supplied by the book's editors Berry, Obermiller, and Scott: "Many key figures in the academic institutionalization of Appalachian studies were natives of the region. In this sense, Appalachian studies was 'indigenized' rather early in its development."
Praise Mt. Katahdin! I have for a long time hoped to qualify as an Appalachian, but it always felt presumptuous, because even though I play the lap dulcimer, have spent a lot of time following blazes on the Appalachian Trail, and played as a kid on top of the Cumberland escarpment a stone's throw away from Emma Bell Miles
's farm, I also grew up in suburbia playing classical music instead of bluegrass, was destined to get a college education because the other damn Dutch side of my family had been doing that for at least four generations already, and as for religion, my raising wasn't so much "none" as "are you kidding?" Somehow those always seemed to be disqualifying factors, but, hey, not to worry: Berry Obermiller Scott say "the majority of 'native' Appalachianists are white and educated, and many come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds."
It seems too easy, somehow, like I've crashed a wedding and made off with the bride. Also, to be honest, it takes my breath away that Berry Obermiller Scott bestow the title of "indigenous Appalachian" to everyone born into the region because there's a certain, er, removal of the traditional distinguishing feature of the word that connotes native Americans, a group that the editors themselves and others in their fine collection say has been slighted by Appalachian studies. I myself wouldn't be prone to taking such a drastic step as they.
But on the other hand I'm not one to turn down a free pass to membership in a nouveau tribe. Not without a scrap, anyway. After all, I'm a mis-educated hillbilly born and phrased and re-phrased by "on the other hand" and all manner of shenanigasuistry. You have to prove the spirit. Skepticism is just a safer form of snake-handling.
And Eden is known for nothing if not snakes. This is obvious when, immediately after ushering the educated middle- and upper-class academic wannabes into Appalachia, Berry Obermiller Scott cough into their collective sleeve: "When Appalachianists do not conform to stereotypical constructions of Appalachians, they may be regarded as 'inauthentic' or 'outsiders' both by Appalachian natives and by those from outside the region."
So, trouble in the garden, I guess. Hell, the garden was made for trouble. Damn. Just when I thought I might get to wear that "indigene" merit badge, it gets snatched away from me all because of a little damn mis-education and a daddy with a desk job at TVA.
So, what's it going to be? Am I an indigene or not? Who's an "authentic" Appalachian? And who gets to say?
Insofar as Studying Appalachian Studies can help answer those questions, it does so by presenting a history and critique of an academic discipline that purports to be one of many "area studies" like New West (US) and Pacific Islands studies. (To be completely accurate, their definition of "area studies" also includes the non-geography-based areas Women's and African-American studies.) The practitioners are the "-ists" who devote their lives to the study of the culture, economy, history, etc., of the region. If anyone should be able to answer my questions, shouldn't it be the people who fill the pages of scholarly journals with regional studies and who wrote the encyclopedia of the region?
It might seem so, and yet a recurring refrain of this book is that the field in general -- much to the dismay of the contributors -- is stuck in a state of mind that effectively denies "authentic" status to entire groups of people who "do not conform to stereotypical constructions of Appalachians," primarily women, African-Americans, LGBT folk, and the people formerly known as, um, indigenes.
Importantly, the term used by several of the book's scholars is not "state of mind," but "paradigm," so as to link the exercise to the ruling abstraction in understanding the formatting of knowledge, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, from which the concept comes, and from which also comes the corollary that said revolutions in structured thought occur when paradigms "shift." The Appalachianists in this volume concur that it is time for their field to experience such a shift.
If I were a revolutionary, I'd go with something stronger for my placard than "Paradigm Shift NOW!" The irony of the situation for Appalachian Studies is that its beginnings came in a much headier time than now, when actual revolution was more than just a whisper in the air conditioning of a conference room. I would give one of my Mize dulcimers for the chance to have been at the Big Bang of An Appalachian Studies That Almost Wasn't: the conference in 1970 at Clinch Valley College in Wise, VA, that pitted political activists against scholars and blew things up so bad -- and at the very outset -- that the Appalachian universe couldn't find gravitas until 1976, by which time mortgages seem to have cooled the activists into academicians. Thus does revolution become paradigm shift.
The paradigm that eventuated was this, according to Berry Obermiller Scott: Appalachian Studies "emerged … from an interdisciplinary/activist engagement with political and economic development strategies that sought to explain and intervene in regional economic development. At its birth in the 1970s, Appalachian studies was influenced by the world systems theory of global capitalist developments. Rather than emerging as a response to a single historical paradigm, Appalachian studies was the 'academic wing' of a broader regional reaction to hegemonic government- and corporate-sponsored economic development initiatives."
The "paradigm" in there is less than clear -- "reaction" is more the operative word -- so it isn't until the second chapter, "Representing Appalachia: The Impossible Necessity of Appalachian Studies," that Women's studies scholar Barbara Ellen Smith directly addresses and clarifies the nature of Appalachian Studies paradigm(s). Defining the paradigm within any field as that which "set[s] the terms of its scholarship," Smith describes the above-mentioned "birth" of Appalachian Studies -- "with its broadside attacks on the tradition of condescending and victim-blaming cultural explanations for regional dispossession" -- as an example of paradigm shift. She characterizes the resulting "dominant paradigms" as being the elevation of the "generic and seemingly self-evident categories" of "Appalachians" and "mountaineers" to a superior status that "overrides other forms of social identity," with the result that Appalachia became "an 'imagined community' of insiders, united by sameness."
It is now time, Smith says, for another paradigm shift, one that recognizes other aspects of identity. According to her, despite the fact that feminist, ethnic, and gender scholarship has peppered the paradigm for quite some time now with little effect, the primary reason for a shift has not so much to do with "our academic enterprise" as with "tectonic transformations in the region and the world." At a time when former adversaries have come together as "Friends of Coal," when the traditional bifurcation of male workplace and female household has been shattered, and when racism -- muted in the traditional mountain picture -- is now advanced as a political tool, it is time to replace "the unidimensional paradigm of mountaineer insiders pitted against venal 'outsiders.'"
Smith proceeds to elaborate her case that the dominant paradigms of Appalachian Studies all serve to "homogenize" the region, when what is needed is a regional representation that presents a more diverse tableau of the "human subjects of Appalachian studies." In so doing, she directly addresses a variant of my question about authenticity in a section titled "Whose Appalachia? Who is Appalachia?" What claim do out-migrants have to the identity? How about recent in-migrants from other regions of the U.S. or the world? How many residential generations back does it take to identify as an insider? Who adjudicates? She even asks, "What meaning does that term [Appalachian] possibly convey?"
In effect, Smith says, Appalachianists must confront "the ultimate impossibility of identifying fixed criteria, whether cultural traits, ancestry, or place attachment, that can separate the true Appalachian from everyone else." To say otherwise "presupposes not only that culture is static and lifeless but also that Appalachia is singular; that is, there is only one Appalachian culture (and, significantly, it tends to be deputed as rural and white). … In sum, paradigms that utilize cultural criteria to define the genuine Appalachian imagine a monolithic region; they tend to reduce its social complexity to a rural, white, place-attached mountaineer."
Within Appalachian Studies, the theory of Appalachia as an "internal colony" exacerbated this reductio, according to her, by compounding the notion of good insider vs. bad outsider. As Smith puts it, "Not all insiders to Appalachia are social equals, much less friends of social justice, nor are all outsider exploiters and reactionaries." She quotes fellow Appalachianist Dwight Billings: "The metaphor of Appalachia as a colony replaced that of Appalachia as a backward culture, but the mythical unity of the region and the homogeneity of its population remained largely unquestioned."
After decades of continued dominance, and still riding high, the original paradigm has produced an "essentialist" ideology that, according to Berry Obermiller Scott, "can result in overgeneralization, misattribution of causality, and the demonization of the 'other.' In that light, Appalachian studies needs to be careful to avoid the tendency to produce an identity politics based on exclusionary 'insider'/'outsider' dichotomies." In a separate chapter -- "Studying Appalachia: Critical Reflections" -- Obermiller and Scott carry this critique forward, citing Herbert Reid that insider/outsiderism is a "slag pile" polluting the scholastic landscape with a leachate that is "the tendency of some Appalachian studies scholars, artists, and activists to represent Appalachian communities in an ahistorical, idealized fashion that neglects political oppression and economy exploitation within the region's localities."
Well might these fine scholars rail against this downside, but after numerous scholastic cohorts since the 1970s, those "educated" in the insider/outsider dichotomy are now the dominant voices in what passes as Appalachian popular culture. One of the examples of how this has led to a blinkered, provincial, anti-intellectual attitude is the insistence on a "correct" pronunciation of Appalachia/Appalachian by prominent Appalachianists wielding great cultural and educational influence. I've written about this at length elsewhere (e.g. here here here
) and don't want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that dislodging this form of political correctness will, for such as Berry Obermiller Scott, be an uphill fight. But after all, we're talking about mountains.
Or are we? To me one of the things worth thinking about in connection with Appalachian Studies is its cavalier attitude to geography. It calls itself an "area study" focusing on a region defined by Berry Obermiller Scott as "the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, and Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau, as well as the roughly twenty-five million people who live amid these mountains and valleys. In addition, Appalachian studies also embraces the millions of people who have migrated from the region but whose heritage has deep roots in the region."
Interestingly -- taking out for now the question of out-migration -- this definition of the region is the same as the Appalachian Regional Commission's (ARC), the Federal agency formed to combat poverty in the 1960s. Even more interestingly: according to Obermiller Scott, this definition of the region is another one of Reid's "slag piles." To Reid (via Obermiller Scott) the "uncritical adoption" of the Federal definition is "an indication that Appalachian studies has not escaped the hegemonic forces of the corporate state."
There are some ironies here. The Federal definition essentially papered over the older, mountain-centric one by including metropolitan areas; it had to do this in order to effect a policy of modernization that in part advanced a strategy of getting people out of the mountains into those more accessible (read urbanized) areas where development would be promoted. Where the primordial versions of Appalachian studies -- e.g. John C. Campbell's -- explicitly fixed its focus on mountain residents, the modernized, established version masked the distinction with the Federal definition and in doing so ushered the urbanites into Appalachia.
But somehow -- presumably to the chagrin of Berry Obermiller Scott -- the mountaineers not only persist, but they rule. Either their ghosts infest the discipline by haunting the insider/outsider dichotomy, or they peek through the work of naysayers like palimpsest: their book's third chapter, "Writing Appalachia," by Chris Green and Erica Abrams Locklear, is chock full of usages that treat "the mountains" as an exact synonym for Appalachia, e.g. its concluding distinction that, within the larger genre of Southern literature, Appalachian literature is "from and about the mountains."
This kind of dissonance is typical of the discipline because of its unwillingness to come to grips with a dilemma: once shorn of determinative characteristics, "Appalachian" starts to look pretty sheepish as an academic discipline. Those attributes that, once upon a time, were determinative in some way -- the mountaineer, the poverty, the coal -- are in the eyes of the paradigm shifters a kind of residue that needs to be cleaned away. If perhaps the paradigm has shifted and the shifters have won the field, it has been a pyrrhic victory: the work of debunking has emptied the "area" of any uniqueness whatsoever.
It has become a struggle over a brand: on the one hand the heritage actors -- the mountaineers, overalled but not overawed, speaking Elizabethan Ainglish with moonshine breath while clogging to banjo music at the mouth of the mine shaft before gittin' to feudin' with their first-cousin inlaws over the distribution of good ol' gal county teacher jobs -- and on the other the pointillist forces of globalized identity "solidarity" looking to bust up the stills of honky patriarchy in their own private Idaho.
But presumably everyone's saying "Appalachia" "right," so hey things could be worse.
Brands work like billboards. The brand is a created identity; it is designed to promote a product by evoking a positive, emotional response that at some future time will become a commercial transaction. In this case the future of the brand is at the mercy of the administrators of regional academic institutions whose bottom line is students. It is really no contest: administrators will overwhelmingly prefer the heritage actors, who will bring in students who have already conditioned by the insider/outsider dichotomy put out there in the popular culture by … the heritage actors. It's practically a feedback loop. The paradigm will not shift as desired by the authors of Studying Appalachian Studies as long as university administrators and their marketing departments have anything to do with it.
The field will be littered with "hands-on" courses whose instructors will do little, if any, of the activity regarded as central to the field of scholarship: writing or publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. The "interdisciplinary" aspect of Appalachian Studies so heavily touted by the authors of this book, while it may work to the benefit of the brand, also works to weaken the disciplines themselves, e.g. when it is manifested in the form of "Appalachian Music" and "storytelling" courses that take place out on the Appalachian limb, entirely apart from the traditional music or literature programs. Why is this? Because the avenue of the raw material for those courses is presumably oral, which apparently means that its practitioners need not subject themselves to the confines of literacy. And this will be fine with administrators. Even better if it can be accomplished with part-time adjuncts requiring no benefits. Played right, Appalachian Studies can be a coal, er, gold mine for administrators.
That is not to say that there are not admirable scholars teaching some of these courses. It would be better, however, if they taught those courses within the framework of the traditional disciplines, where they would be freer to parse influences and look at the larger context rather than continue to push the commercialized paradigm in which Appalachian Studies is 30 banjoists gathered around a single microphone, because, you know, that's how they did it in the good ol' days.
Interestingly, a similar but openly-commercial effort to brand the Tri-Cities, TN, area where I live as the "Appalachian Highlands" received less than a glowing response from local citizens. It turns out that the tourism marketers lab-tested the proposed name among people who live in other parts of the country ("outsiders," as it were), and they responded to "Appalachian Highlands" as having positive connotations that would predispose them to visiting the area. After the idea was rolled out in Kingsport, however, the City Council wanted nothing to do with it; the Council's opinion was largely echoed in the letters to the editor of the local paper. Some people wanted no association with the negative stereotypes that in their minds went with "Appalachian," but a substantial number objected to the geographical illiteracy of the concept: whatever Kingsport might be, it ain't "highlands."
Also interestingly, in the middle of this a Facebook group launched called "The Holston Region." The timing was suspicious: it almost seemed as if the (non-academic) local historians primarily involved in the Facebook group were aiming a not-so-subtle jab at the marketers. In effect the group was saying, "If you look to history, here is the name of our region." And it is true: the general designations used in the past to refer to what was popularly known as the "overmountain" region invoked the names not of mountains but of rivers, because it was in the river valleys that settlement generally occurred. Even as of not too long ago, but pre-Federal-Appalachia, the widely-used descriptors for the upper South were river-based ones: Tennessee Valley, Shenandoah Valley, New River Valley, etc.
Along these lines, another aspect of the Appalachian reality that bears considering is that the towns -- as centers of learning, law, and culture -- were always held to be apart from the mountains. Thus you can read in an account of the Depression-Era establishment of the state theatre of Virginia -- the Barter Theatre -- in (relatively) small Abingdon that many of the early attendees brought the farm produce accepted for admission (actors gotta eat) in from Appalachia. Meanwhile, down the road in Bristol (a non-highland Tri-City), pre-big-bang-of-country-music, there wasn't an opry; there was an "opera house."
Then the mountains became cool. They got above their raisin'. They followed the money. They pushed the watersheds and the towns out of the geocultural terminological picture and set up their wannabe empire in the halls of academe. Was it pretension or chutzpah that led East Tennessee State University in Johnson City (also a non-highland Tri-City) to name its university archives "The Archives of Appalachia"? Wouldn't Appalachian State over in NC -- a school bearing the "Appalachian" name since 1903 and genuinely located in the highlands -- seem to have a better claim to the name? Perhaps ASU can rest comfortably in the self-assurance of its university motto, "Esse quam videri": "To be, rather than to seem."
Maybe this wannabe indigene could adopt it. Probably not. I'm still unconvinced that I deserve whatever distinction the term bestows. Similarly with the title "Appalachianist." While I am convinced that Berry Obermiller Scott, Smith, Green, Locklear and all the rest who contributed to this valuable book are bonafide scholars whose labors deserve commendation and publicity, I find myself reluctant to allow them -- or myself -- to use this particular word as a label. The blithe manner in which they throw it around ignores the levels of connotative complexity that the word possesses. This careless attitude mirrors the arbitrary stance of the marketer rather than the respectful stance of the scholar. While this apparent lack of concern about the label might be explained as the residue of emotional identity issues arising from the creation of the field, to cling to a name whose working definition is derived from bureaucratic realpolitik rather than examined reality seems an odd strategy for scholars to take.
It is telling, for example, that (as reported by Green and Locklear) Kentucky poet Wendell Berry refused inclusion of his writing in Voices of the HIlls -- "perhaps the most influential collection of Appalachian literature" -- because he "did not consider himself Appalachian." Why was he even considered? Of course he's not Appalachian! This kind of seemingly uninformed grasping at territory by hugely informed people is exasperating.
Smith's "impossible necessity" is rather a "necessary impossibility": both surrender the capacity to make geographical distinctions and at the same time accept a parochial identity. For all the talk of shifting paradigms, Appalachian Studies is trapped in a rhododendron hell of its own choosing: with "Appalachia" as its badge, its practitioners will despite their best efforts never escape the insider/outsider dichotomy that gets deeper and thicker with each passing year as quasi-intellectual pop culture and university marketers feed its mythological roots.
"The path is made by walking," says the Antonio Machado poem that inspired the subtitle of this book. If Appalachian Studies is stuck in a rhododendron hell, the way forward will require not so much walking as strenuous contortion.